Cougars too close for comfort

  • FAIR GAME: Mountain lion

    Erwin A. Bauer photo
  Mountain lions will soon be prey in the popular federal Rattlesnake Recreation Area on the edge of Missoula, Mont. In early December, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service announced the end of a ban on hunting the big cats in the lower Rattlesnake area.

The announcement comes after a summer that saw an attack on a child at a ski area just east of the Rattlesnake - and 19 sightings of lions in the 5,700-acre portion of the recreation area affected by the decision.

"Our goal is to reduce encounters between people and lions," says John Firebaugh of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Joe Kipphut, a recreation coordinator with the Forest Service, says traditional lion hunts in the region have eliminated the built-in population control that takes place when mature males are present. Because the "big toms," as Kipphut calls them, have had their numbers reduced by hunters, the more troublesome juveniles have proliferated. The current plan for the Rattlesnake calls for three to four adult female or sub-adult lions to be killed.

Firebaugh says a similar plan was proposed four years ago, but was aborted because of public outcry. This year, he says, he hopes that the limited number of hunting permits and the restriction of weapons to handguns or bows and arrows should be enough to offset additional safety concerns in the high-use recreation area.

"We hope this is going to be more than a short-term solution," says Firebaugh. "It's a problem that's going to continue as long as we have people living in areas where mountain lions also live, and as long as people are building homes where lions used to live."

*Dan Oko

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